Stealing Fire

This is an important book for creatives. It talks, in very clear terms, about ways to achieve the Flow State, that period when the world falls away and you’re lost to a rush of pure thought and inspiration. When you achieve Flow, you feel like you can write, or paint, or create music, forever. But it’s incredibly elusive. Getting it is hard. Holding on to it for a sustained period is even more difficult.

‘We have very little success training people to be more creative. And there’s a pretty simple explanation for this failure: we’re trying to train a skill, but what we really need to be training is a state of mind.’

As the subtitle of Stealing Fire suggests – How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionising The Way We Live and Work – authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal have done their homework. They provide a range of new research, thinking and practise across several disciplines.

Anything which manages to pull together how the NAVY SEALs train, elite athletes, the Burning Man festival, and tech entrepreneurs micro-dosing with LSD,  is anything but ephemeral in its approach. The book is about how to hack your mind to produce the best results, and the authors suggest several approaches, some of which you might wish to consider, some which may seem a step too far (but which are working extremely well for many high-performing individuals).

‘By treating the mind like a dashboard, by treating different states of consciousness like apps to be judiciously deployed, we can bypass a lot of psychological storytelling and get results faster and, often, with less frustration.’

Kotler and Wheal are talking about achieving ecstasis, ‘stepping outside oneself’, and trace it back two thousand years to the initiatory rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Greece. It’s not all dry theory. They manage to interview a range of really interesting people who are putting these practices into effect and transforming their lives and environment in the process.

‘When we say ecstasis we’re talking about a very specific range of nonordinary states of consciousness (NOSC)—what Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Stanislav Grof defined as those experiences “characterized by dramatic perceptual changes, intense and often unusual emotions, profound alterations in the thought processes and behavior, [brought about] by a variety of psychosomatic manifestations, rang[ing] from profound terror to ecstatic rapture . . . There exist many different forms of NOSC; they can be induced by a variety of different techniques or occur spontaneously, in the middle of everyday life.”’

And it’s not just for creatives. Stealing Fire is very much a book about the 21st century, the changing world we live in, and the changing nature of the people who inhabit that world. There’s also some interesting work reported from trauma studies, about how the techniques discussed here can help mend what’s broken. The same techniques, practiced regularly, can ‘nurture what is best in ourselves,’ and ‘cultivate the exceptional’, according to the scholar Alan Watts.

‘It’s the same physical world, same bits and bytes, just different perception and processing. But the cascade of neurobiological change that occurs in a non-ordinary state lets us perceive and process more of what’s going on around us and with greater accuracy. In these states, we get upstream of our umwelt. We get access to increased data, heightened perception, and amplified connection. And this lets us see ecstasis for what it actually is: an information technology. Big Data for our minds.’

If you enjoy Tim Ferriss’ books about how to adapt and thrive in the modern world – The Four-Hour Workweek, The Four-Hour Body – you’ll undoubtedly enjoy this.

Pendragon Reviews

Pendragon has been receiving some great reviews. That’s always hugely gratifying when you’ve laboured over a novel for a year, but it’s particularly nice when people ‘get’ what you’re trying to do. Here’s a couple:

Deadly culture clashes and earthy mysticism (complete with witchcraft and visions fueled by magic mushrooms) combine in this exciting saga about a dark time in European history. The plot doesn’t go where you’d expect, and there are more than a few fierce, stereotype-defying women characters.

Though it works successfully as a standalone, Pendragon can also be viewed as the beginning of a much larger tale. The events weaving together aren’t just changing individual lives, they are shaping a nation. Wilde’s latest skillfully deconstructs the myths of Arthur and Camelot but creating a stunning prequel.

 

Pendragon – The Times Review

Great review of Pendragon in The Times today:

Pendragon has all the hallmarks of a traditional historical adventure story – there are battles, swords, and he bantering of violent men, all done with style. However, there is also intellectual heft to the story, with its themes of myth-making and the nature of power.

You can check it out or pre-order it here.

Pendragon: The First Review: ‘Highly Recommended’

If you were on the fence about picking up my forthcoming novel, Pendragon, the first review is now in…

Pendragon…. the name just screams Arthur, Genevieve, Lancelot and all that goes with it. Well take that preconception and throw it out the window. Not since Bernard Cornwall took on the Arthur myth has any writer provided such a new and innovative view of the Arthurian story.

 

Pendragon Proofs Now In

The road to publication follows familiar landmarks – finishing the first draft, the various edits, through the delivery of the first box of books to publication day and the subsequent round of publicity and signings.  One of the key moments is the arrival of the uncorrected proofs – softbound copies of the novel, usually replete with the odd error, that go out to reviewers and booksellers.

The proofs for Pendragon, by the ‘other me’, James Wilde, are now in.  If you fall into one of those two groups, get in touch with Penguin Random House UK publicity to order your copy.

“Before King Arthur…before Camelot…before Excalibur…the Legend begins…”

You can pre-order this reimagining of the beginnings of the Arthurian myth here, or from your favourite book store.

Faerie, Elizabethan Spies And Reviews

Two new reviews for the Sword of Albion books that I’ve just been sent:

First, The Scar-Crow Men:

“the plot just kept me turning, page after page…”

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And The Devil’s Looking Glass:

“a cracking series…a great blend of history, action and supernatural elements and I think the attention to detail is pretty marvellous.”

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Gone Girl – A Few Thoughts

Gone Girl has been running high in the bestseller charts for a while now, and there’s a movie on the way from David Fincher, a man who knows a good thing when he sees it.  While I was taking a break down in Cornwall for a week, I nabbed a copy and enjoyed it a lot.

In a way, you get two different books here. Luckily, both of them are very good. The first is a suspense thriller with a mounting sense of unease built through the accretion of tiny details and the realisation that two different people are looking at the same events in different ways. The revelations are eked out by the author’s skilful work and keep the ground moving under your feet. It’s an addictive telling that’s grounded in truly good writing that particularly captures both a sense of place and the deep psychology of people.

At the midway point we begin to transition to the other book, Gillian Flynn’s dissection of the state of modern love and marriage, with some very acute observations and analysis. If you’re an old school sentimentalist, you might not like what you find. What I enjoy about the author’s take is that she doesn’t cosset the reader. She’s not afraid to reveal the harsh nature of human beings, the transactional state of some relationships and that love can mean many things to many different people.

Some people have complained about the ending. I have no problem with it. If this were only a suspense thriller, it would not be the ending you’d want, but it fits perfectly with the author’s design of her characters and her themes. She’s created a very good monster here, but one that could easily exist though few would want to admit that (I’ve met a handful of sociopaths who play in the same ballpark).

My one criticism is that the second half – in plot terms – is too rushed compared to the first half. I think the ending would have been better served by a slower pace and more of the detail we were used to. But overall, a great book, a great character study, a great commentary, and one that will grow over time.

The Second Machine Age – Book Review

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress And Prosperity In A Time Of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

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The first machine age was the Industrial Revolution which ran from about 1760 to the middle of the 19th century. It changed everything, disrupting the agrarian-based life of most people and hurling everyone into the world we see around us. This book, by two MiT professors, suggests that we’re now in a second machine age, a second industrial revolution, driven by technological development that will change the world even more fundamentally, and much, much faster. They present an excellent argument, drawing on the knowledge of people at the cutting edge of all the disruptive changes now affecting every aspect of life – from Silicon Valley pioneers to economists and academics.

It’s certainly an important book for the times, bringing together all the many strands that cause those queasy fears that many experience as comforting familiarities fall away. But why should you read it? Because as with the first industrial revolution, there will be winners and losers (in the 18th century, the losers were all those poor field workers who had to uproot to work in the dark satanic mills. The winners were those who seized control of the emerging technologies). If you’re planning your future, your career, or thinking ahead for your children’s sake, there is vital information contained within. Tip: don’t become an accountant, a driving instructor, or do any task that involves repeating a process. And really, truly, do not give up on education – go as far as you can.

The winners will be people who have ideas, who can create, whether in business or art. They’ll set up their own businesses, get hired as freelancers, and be handsomely rewarded. The losers will be anyone who offers their labour, who performs a task for the benefit of others. Read the book to find out why this is true, and what it means for society.

The authors make their case with an easy-reading style backed up with lots of solid evidence, but it loses a point, possibly unfairly, for an issue that is probably beyond their control. Two chapters are devoted to recommendations, short term and long term, that can help us get the best out of the massive change that is coming to the world in the next ten years. But they are generally far too broad brush. That’s because, as the authors point out, it’s so hard to predict how fast these changes are going to come: the rate of disruption is accelerating and the churn is getting wilder because one small innovation influences a great many more.

The book is not wholly comforting – the pressures on society are going to be huge – although it could be. The message is plain. We can’t resist these changes. They’re coming whether we like them or not, and if we try to fight them, all our energy will be wasted in a futile endeavour. But if we try to manage that change we can minimise the destructive elements and maximise the vast potential benefits for society as a whole. All we need to do is to pay attention now.

Proof Of Heaven – Book Review

Proof

Near Death Experiences (NDEs) are a fascinating topic. They affect people regardless of cultural background or religious belief, or lack of it, and they’ve been recorded from the earliest days of civilisation. For years science has suggested explanations for the tunnel, the white light, the dead relatives waiting to greet you, and all the other familiar markers of an NDE. But whether dumps of DMT from the pineal gland, primitive brainstem programs or toxic overstimulation of cortical neurons, those theories have all been found wanting as we have discovered more about what really happens to the brain under the threat of death.

If you had to suggest what would make the best case study of an NDE, it would involve: a skeptical patient, someone who was an expert in neuroscience, and a situation where there were extremely detailed records of what was happening to brain chemistry at the point of death. By the laws of chance, that is never going to happen…

Except here it did. Eben Alexander is a leading neurosurgeon with a well-documented career of writing and teaching about neuroscience in leading institutions. He was also a confirmed materialist and a skeptic of anything spiritual – even of the notion that consciousness existed beyond a mechanical construct of the brain’s processing of experience and memory.

And then Alexander was struck down by a rare and seemingly incurable form of bacterial meningitis that threw him into a coma. The doctors at the hospital where he worked gave him less than a ten per cent chance of survival, and even if he did pull through he was expected to be irretrievably brain-damaged. Finally they advised his family to turn off life support.

Yet against all the odds, Alexander did wake up, and with all his faculties intact. And he came back with a staggering account of an NDE that is all the more powerful because it could not…should not…be. His detailed medical records show that there was no activity in his brain that could possibly have accounted for what he experienced – in effect, the human, thinking part of him was dead.

The unique case study alone is worth the four stars – it’s an important account in the study of NDEs. The book itself, for me, probably deserves three. It’s easy reading – no doubt because Alexander wanted to convey his experiences to the widest possible audience – but I would have preferred some more analytical writing and less visceral or emotional.

Having said that, Proof of Heaven is worth reading because of the confluence of Alexander’s scientific background and the life-changing experience he underwent, one which kicked away all the props of the intellectual life he’d built over his years in science.

Review: The Devil’s Looking Glass

Excellent review of The Devil’s Looking Glass in the latest Locus magazine. And they also take the time to praise The Sword of Albion/The Silver Skull:

“These characters tend to peer out from tangles of painfully twisted emotions. The plot can seem just as gnarled, with many turnings, terrors, betrayals, and revelations about its mingling, shifting worlds.”